A Denver firm that studies mountain resort economics is already declaring the 2012-13 winter a success based on February data.
The Mountain Travel Research Program, known as MTRiP, released mountain lodging results Thursday that attribute occupancy and rate increases this winter to more consistent snowfall and a stronger overall economy. MTRiP director Ralf Garrison said almost 94 percent of total reservations for the winter season are already on the books and show a 9 percent increase in revenues over last season.
February data shows a 14.2 percent increase in occupancy industry-wide over last February, and a 2.6 percent increase in average daily rate. MTRiP studies mountain economies across the western United States, so the data is not specific to Colorado. However, local statistics are telling a similar story.
Garrison thinks the latest data is significant because it shows what happens for mountain economies when the weather and the economy come together. Although there hasn't been a season in recent memory in which a great economy and great snow have created a perfect tourism scenario, the 2012-13 season has at least provided both a decent economy and decent snow, Garrison said.
Garrison's data looks at reservations on the books, which is why those who pay attention to skier visits - such as trade organizations like Colorado Ski Country USA and the National Ski Areas Association - aren't ready to make any declarations about the season.
"Anecdotally from our members, we're hearing that it's definitely better than last year but not our best," Colorado Ski Country USA spokeswoman Jennifer Rudolph said about skier visits.
Colorado entered the 2012-13 ski season with a snow hangover, and not in a good way. The 2011-12 season was one of the driest on record, creating bad memories for skiers and snowboarders not only regionally, but across the United States and internationally.
The conversation in November within the industry was one of uncertainty and trepidation. As of mid-November, ski resort bookings across the west for the 2012-13 season were down, and Garrison reported at the time that the saving grace would be a solution to the federal "fiscal cliff" negotiations combined with big enough snowstorms to change consumer attitudes.
The snow did come in mid-December and it was enough to create a boost in reservations for the remainder of the month, but more important, it boosted reservation momentum for the rest of the winter season.
Vail Resorts, which owns ski resorts in both Summit and Eagle counties, reported strong second quarter earnings last week. Company CEO Rob Katz noted that snowfall created an earnings rebound after a sluggish start to winter, leading to significant consumer spending.
"The growth in season-to-date visitation and ancillary revenue reflects the continued strong performance of our business despite managing through a challenging start to the season. We are seeing continued success from our efforts as the trends in visitation, lift ticket revenue and guest spending have all accelerated since we last reported metrics in mid-January," Katz said.
Aspen Skiing Co. told the Aspen Times this week that January and February skier visits at its resorts were good, but not great. The company reports an 8 percent decrease in skier visits from Thanksgiving through Dec. 31 compared to last season, but spokesman Jeff Hanle said the company was making up ground and is now trailing the 2011-12 season by just 2 percent as of the end of February.
What's notable about skier visits, however, is that those numbers don't typically tell the revenue story because skier visits include local and regional guests who don't spend as much as destination guests.
Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, an Aspen-based central reservations agency, said the MTRiP data signals that Snowmass Village is seeing tourism rebound. Tomcich noted that while Aspen's occupancy rate in February trailed 1.3 percent behind its showing in February 2012, Snowmass saw a 19.5 percent improvement in the same month - with an overall occupancy rate of 72.6 percent.
Snowmass' February showing marks the highest occupancy rate since MTRiP began tracking the metrics in late 2005, Tomcich said. Previously, the strongest two months for Snowmass came in January 2007 (72.1 percent) and February 2008 (71.9 percent).
Toby Babich, president of Breckenridge Resort Managers, said this season has exceeded expectations in Breckenridge.
"There is no question that this season has brought about an increased trend of positive economic growth many of us have been striving to reach since 2008," Babich said via email. "The real question is, can we sustain a positive trend?"
The MTRiP data might send a positive message about the overall industry, but the local tourism industry isn't calling anything "in the bag" just yet. The question asked by Babich is one echoed regionally by tourism industry professionals who need to see continued - not just temporary - success in mountain resort economies.
Chris Romer, executive director of the Vail Valley Partnership, said there's still plenty of opportunity to drive more success this season.
"I'd say we're far from 'in the bag,' " Romer said. "We still have five weeks left in the ski season and at least three significant events to drive that business."
Romer acknowledges that significant ground has already been made up considering all of the uncertainties the industry faced early in the season, but it's still too early to comment on the season as a whole, he said. The major Vail-area events coming up include the Vail Film Festival, the Taste of Vail and Spring Back to Vail.
April reservations are down industry-wide, partially because of an early Easter this year on March 31, but Romer said if the region benefits from continued snowfall, those numbers could get a boost.
Tomcich said March bookings for Aspen and Snowmass are showing an uptick from the same month last year, with Snowmass gaining the most momentum going into April.
"As of Feb. 28, both Aspen and Snowmass were reporting occupancies just slightly ahead of last year for the month of March," Tomcich said. "Then looking ahead toward early April, Aspen looks rather quiet while Snowmass should finish the 2012-13 ski season super strong with the Disabled American Veterans during the first week of April and followed by Mountain Travel Symposium the very next week. Despite this strong finish in Snowmass, I should stress that we certainly have plenty of vacancies for every remaining night this season and there is an abundance of great last-minute offers to be found."
Breckenridge hasn't seen occupancy levels this high since the 2007-08 season, Breckenridge Resort Chamber Vice President Bill Wishowski said, which leads to a conversation beyond this winter season.
"I think (the data) says a lot of things - the economy seems to be recovering, people are getting confidence back - there's a lot of economic factors looking positive," Wishowski said, adding that the chamber's central reservations office has been turning away business on weekends since December because of such high demand.
Garrison expects the 9 percent increase in occupancy over last year to come down to about 6 percent once the ski season is over.
Rick Carroll of the Aspen Times, Jessica Smith of the Summit Daily and John Stroud of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent contributed to this report.